These signifiers are products of the last ten years, smartphones and virtual social networking, and cultural icons like Bob Marley and Kim Kardashian. But in Saudi Arabia, an isolated Wahhabist paradise — and the largest and wealthiest country in the Middle East — these abbreviative signs are handy rhetorical devices for tapping into an unrestrained subculture while under the seemingly inescapable gaze of government censors. But then again, most products of modern life, particularly American culture, are. In the modern nation-state — be it liberal or Wahhabist — law-making is myth-making, and legal jargon, enforced by lashes and the death penalty, is fodder for the Saudi government, whose interests lie in maintaining the integrity and validity of the national imaginary. The instantiation of a national legal code supposedly creates and conscripts a legally sanctioned citizen, one that fits nicely within the Wahhabist doctrine of the Kingdom. Saudi individual does not exist outside of the bounds of the law. After all, there is no greater myth created by the law than the fact that it is completely constitutive of culture, that it sets the parameters within which culture exists. Bacchanalian events feature Saudi princes wielding Kalashnikovs at men who eye their women, cheetahs on top of Lamborghinis, and falcons perched on the shoulders of scantily-clad Eastern European women. The scene is populated by char- acters like Elisa from Brazil, who moved to Jeddah to teach Salsa dancing, and Sam, an actor who moved from France to learn Arabic so he could play a part of a kid in the banlieues and make some extra cash. This sybaritism is not entirely expat-produced; though expats do play a large role in the formation of the Saudi subculture, there a re also many Saudi nationals in the scene.
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In Saudi Arabia’s rigid past, religious police once swooped down on rose sellers and anyone peddling red paraphernalia around Valentine’s Day, but now a more open — albeit risky — dating culture is taking root. Pursuing relationships outside of marriage in the conservative Islamic kingdom once amounted to a death wish, and would-be Romeos resorted to pressing phone numbers up against their car window in hope of making contact with women.
Now a sweeping liberalization drive — which has rendered the religious police toothless and allowed gender mixing like never before — has made it easier for young couples to meet in cafes and restaurants. Well-heeled millennials also hunt for romantic liaisons via Twitter and Snapchat, and apps such as Swarm — designed to log places the user visits but often repurposed to look for dates. Pre-marital relationships remain a cultural minefield though in a country steeped in Islamic tradition and where matchmaking is typically overseen by family elders, forcing couples to keep unsanctioned romance under wraps.
Covert dating operations illustrate how Saudi Arabia’s mainly young population is often compelled to lead dual lives in the pursuit of social liberties that may outstrip the kingdom’s capacity for change. Samirah, a year-old finance executive in the Saudi capital, felt a flutter of nerves when her boyfriend’s mother stumbled upon a handwritten birthday card and gift she gave him — and that risked her own family finding out.
In a society where family honor is often tied to female chastity, the revelation would have provoked fury from her family and jeopardized their months-long courtship that began through common friends. Her boyfriend managed to deflect his mother, but the scare prompted the young couple yearning for more freedom to plan a forbidden rendezvous — a long weekend in Dubai disguised as a business trip.
In scenes unimaginable until just two years ago, women have been seen swaying on the shoulders of men at music concerts as the kingdom tears down the walls of sex segregation. But while the religious police have stepped back, the internal policing within Saudi families and society at large has not stopped, highlighting the limits of a Western-style liberalization drive in a deeply conservative country.